When General Motors created vehicle line executives in 1995, the automaker said it would keep people in those jobs for at least eight years. The idea was to bring more continuity and accountability to vehicle development.
Four years later, with its market share slipping and the future of its profitable, full-sized truck program on the line, GM has made two exceptions.
In June, GM named one vehicle line executive, Michael Grimaldi, as its No. 2 sales executive in North America. Two weeks later it moved another vehicle line executive, Gary White, into Grimaldi's former role as head of full-sized truck development.
David Sharpe, who heads GM's vehicle line executive program, said the need to move Grimaldi and White took priority over the long-term nature of the vehicle line executive system. But that does not mean GM is changing the system.
'These continue to be long-term jobs,' Sharpe said.
Vehicle line executives oversee the initial market research, design and production of a vehicle group. GM originally said it would like such executives to hold their jobs for at least two product cycles.
Sharpe, GM's executive in charge of vehicle development processes, said that is still the plan.
'It's still not ideal to move (a vehicle line executive) once a program goes into production,' Sharpe said.
However, GM, faced with a 1.7 percentage-point decline in market share through June and still struggling with a restructured field staff and new vehicle ordering system, tapped Grimaldi to fix its problems. He replaced Darwin Clark as general manager of field sales, service and parts.
Grimaldi, the only vehicle line executive also to hold the title of GM vice president, now reports to Roy Roberts, group executive of North American vehicle sales, service and marketing.
GM then picked White, vehicle line executive for hi-mid cars - the Chevrolet Impala and Monte Carlo and the Buick Regal and Century - as its new full-sized truck vehicle line executive.
White's timing is good. GM's new full-sized pickup was launched last year ahead of schedule, and most of the work on this year's launch of the redesigned full-sized sport-utility is done.
However, Sharpe said White must keep GM trucks competitive with faster redesigns and bigger midcycle changes at Ford Motor Co. and DaimlerChrysler.
DaimlerChrysler is expected to redesign its Dodge Ram for the 2002 model year, and Ford has two niche pickups on the way during the next two years, along with its Suburban fighter, the Excursion, this fall. Ford also is expected to restyle the Ford Expedition and Lincoln Navigator for the 2002 model year.
'There is a challenge with the continued shortening of (product) cycles, particularly with the SUVs and pickup trucks,' Sharpe said.
He expects White's recent experience launch- ing the new Chevrolet Impala and Monte Carlo, plus his past work as a program manager at Cadillac and Olds-mobile, will help him maintain GM's momentum with trucks.
BETTER THAN THE PAST
One industry observer thinks GM should keep people in vehicle line executive positions for even more than two product cycles to understand a vehicle platform and what direction it should take completely.
'(Vehicle line executives) are really supporters and champions for the way the vehicle is structured,' said Michael Robinet, an automotive analyst with CSM Worldwide in Northville, Mich.
GM has 11 of its 13 North American vehicle line executives still in their original jobs. And although Grimaldi and White were only in their last jobs for four years, Sharpe said that is still an improvement over the old system.
Said Sharpe: 'By our past standards, (four years) is a very long time.'